Debunking Historical Myths: Abraham Lincoln, the “Progressive”

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Abraham Lincoln has long been renowned as one of the best presidents in American history. For generations, he has been admired by Republicans and Democrats alike, for various reasons. Some most admire his willingness to uphold the proposition that all men are created equal. Others are fond of his ability to deliver impeccable orations. Since the early 1900s, however, there has been an attempt to enlist Lincoln in the ranks of Progressives. Their goal is to undermine the Constitution and place government above natural rights. In actuality, was Lincoln a “Progressive” in the 20th or 21st century meaning of the word? Let’s examine the evidence.

What the left says: Abraham Lincoln was a liberal progressive who proceeded the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Reality: Lincoln was a Classical Liberal in some ways and a Conservative in others. Nonetheless, he sought to uphold the wishes of the founding fathers.

Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt

The Progressive Era began around the 1890s. This period of American history ushered in a new era of government control. For the next few decades, figureheads including the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson sought to turn the Constitution into a “living” document. Put simply, they wanted to mold the Constitution to fit the respective era. As such, Progressives called for greater federal control, and dismissed the idea of natural rights, which the founders had strongly promoted. Following Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, he attempted a third run for the office under the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party. Attempting to enlist Lincoln for the Progressive cause, Roosevelt said the following in relation to direct democracy:

“Our opponents have especially objected to our doctrine that the people have the right to control all their servants, judicial, executive, and legislative alike. Well, listen to Abraham Lincoln. He assailed his opponents because they ‘made war upon the first principle of popular government, the rights of the people,’ because they ‘boldly advocated the denial to the people of the right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative, and because they argued that ‘large control by the people in government’ is the ‘source of all political evil.’ Mind you, I am quoting from Lincoln’s words uttered over fifty years ago. They are applicable in letter and in spirit to our opponents today. They apply without the change of a word to those critics who assail us because we advocate the initiative and the referendum and, where necessary, the recall, and because we stand for the right of the people to control all their public servants, including the judges when the judges exercise a legislative function.”

President Theodore Roosevelt.

Lincoln and Judicial Recall

Lincoln and Judicial Recall
As Ronald J. Pestritto and Jason R. Jividen state in their essay, Lincoln and the Progressives, Roosevelt was right to assert that Lincoln considered the Confederate government to be an assault on certain rights. Where Roosevelt was wrong, however, lay in claiming that Lincoln was a supporter of direct democracy and called for Progressive reforms of the sort. The fact is, Lincoln never mentioned supporting the recall of public officials. Lincoln supported political change via constitutional means, and it was Lincoln who said, “The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both Congresses and courts not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” Progressives also tend to forget Lincoln’s first prominent speech, spoken at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, in 1838.

The Lyceum Address

Not quite 30 years old, Lincoln used this oration to promote American greatness in unity and state the dangers of allowing slavery to spread westward. To do this, he strongly promoted the beliefs of the founders and encouraged Americans to stand by the principles introduced in the American Revolution. Lincoln stated, “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to support the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.”

Far from being a Progressive who believed in a changing Constitution and government infringement of natural rights, Lincoln was quite the opposite. Lincoln was a staunch defender of the founders, the Declaration, and the Constitution, and he deserves to be remembered as such. No amount of Leftist revisionism can change the facts.

Garrett Smith
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